28 Apr Not Your Fault When You Lose Your Cool? Think Again.

It’s the music that really drives me nuts.

Jaunty and upbeat; it’s a loop of auditory torture that stops only for a recorded smiley sounding voice who keeps assuring me that my call is important and that someone will be attending to me shortly.

I turn the volume down to escape the music, then back up, anxious about missing the moment when a real person finally answers my call.

I’m on hold with a Telco call centre and I already know it’s likely to end badly.

Finally, I’m greeted by a real person, and in scripted verse I’m asked for the exact same information that I’ve already entered via my keypad.

My blood pressure rises and my brain feels like it’s on high simmer.

I’m assured that my problem will be resolved promptly, but we’re already going round in circles.

I glance at the clock and realise how much time I’ve already wasted on this call, and this realisation serves as a sudden accelerant for my self-indulgent rage.

Suddenly, I’m the perfect demonstration of healthy communication gone wrong: I’m behaving in exactly the way I spend my entire working life helping people NOT to behave.

I’m raising my voice, I’m interrupting, and I’m no longer thinking (or speaking) rationally. I know I’m behaving badly, but I don’t stop anyway, and the fact that I don’t stop is making me even angrier.

The angrier I get, the worse I behave, and the worse I behave, the angrier I get.

It doesn’t end well, for either of us.

Later, once I’ve had time to calm down, I feel ashamed at how I behaved. I try telling myself that it’s their fault for torturing me with that music and keeping me on hold for so long, but I feel empty inside.

Deep down I know that how I behaved was my responsibility, and mine alone.

Sure, I was in a situation that was very annoying, and the fact that it was annoying was not my fault. But what I chose to do about this, was.

Which got me wondering: Why did I choose to behave badly?

Do partners who behave badly with each other make this same choice?

And what do partners need to know to make better choices – choices that will create relationships that thrive?

I choose to behave badly because I believed two things that aren’t actually true:

Firstly, I believed that my bad behaviour was justified. It’s not my fault that call centres are so annoying, therefore it’s not my responsibility however I behave.

And secondly, I believed that my bad behaviour was out of my control: that given the annoying circumstances, I was so angry I couldn’t help myself, and couldn’t have stopped it even if I tried.

(Not convinced that these beliefs aren’t true? Think about times when the boss does something unfair at work or you’ve been questioned by an obnoxious policeman – despite it being unfair, and despite being very annoyed, most of us can resist the urge to lose control).

I speak with couples every day and I know that when partners “lose it” with each other, it’s usually because they make the mistake of believing these same two things.

I know this is happening when partners say things like:

“She makes me so mad! I know I yell and say horrible things, but I can’t help myself!”

“My partner makes me so angry, it’s her fault that I get so drunk!”

“He deserves my rage, after what he did to me!”

“Our kids drive me crazy with their fighting! Anyone would lose it like I do!”

Look closely and you’ll see that inherent in these statements are the (incorrect) beliefs that behaving badly is something that’s justified by the actions of another, and that it’s outside our control.

Next time you’re mad at your partner and at risk of indulging your anger with bad behaviour, try these steps first:

1. Stop. Breathe.

2. Remind yourself that your partner’s actions never justify the way you choose to behave, and that you can stop behaving badly whenever you choose to.

3. Find that part of your brain that’s “adult” and speak only from there.

4. And if that’s not possible, take time out.

My ranting at the customer service representative was regrettable. I could have shared an interaction with another human being that left us both better off, not worse. Sure, we are unlikely to ever cross paths again, so the consequences of my decision that day for each of us are minimal – but if I gave myself permission to behave like this with someone I love?

I’d be hurting and harming the very people I love the most, all because I’d be believing stuff that isn’t true.

I frequently see the consequences that partners face when they make the decision to indulge the very worst parts of themselves when with the very people they love the most, and not surprisingly, it doesn’t end well, for either party.

Partners frustrate, disappoint, annoy, or outright enrage each other at times – it’s just part of the deal. Yet each of us is responsible for what happens next. Believe this fact, and you’ll be well placed to create a relationship that thrives.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive for over 25 years. Contact Pamela here.